Overcoming crises through resilience

Some people recover quickly from crises and even grow as a result of them. They have mental resilience, also simply known as resilience. This article provides further information about this topic and useful suggestions about how you can better overcome crises.

At a glance

  • Resilience is the mental strength that enables people to cope well with challenges.
  • Protective factors increase resilience, risk factors reduce it.
  • Protective factors include strengths such as problem-solving and social skills, but also support from family members.
  • Risk factors can include discrimination, poverty or a parent with mental illness.
  • External conditions such as war or social welfare can also influence resilience.
  • Certain behaviors and thought patterns can help strengthen resilience and overcome crises.

Note: The information in this article cannot and should not replace a medical consultation and must not be used for self-diagnosis or treatment.

Young boy sitting at the kitchen table laughing and turning round to face a woman who has turned towards him and is looking at him with a friendly expression.

What is resilience?

In short, resilience is a form of mental strength: resilient people can usually cope well with challenging situations or crises. They use supportive factors in their environment, such as their family or the health care system. Thanks to this support and their own skills, they succeed in growing in the long run by dealing with challenges and even traumatic experiences. As a result, in many situations, resilient people are somewhat protected against mental illnesses.

Resilient people are usually good at managing challenging situations or crises.

Everyone has the potential for resilience. This potential can be externally strengthened through supportive factors and internally strengthened through the development of healthy attitudes and thoughts. As such, resilience is not a personality trait. It is neither absolute nor inflexible and can change over time. Furthermore, resilience not only depends on the person, but also on the environment in which they live. For example, political systems can create conditions that support or reduce resilience.

People can also present different levels of resilience in different areas. For example, someone could quickly recover from their grief after the unexpected death of a parent and be able to get on with their life. Yet the same person might develop severe anxiety and suffer from depression after a serious traffic accident.

What factors play a role with regard to resilience?

A person’s resilience in a crisis depends on the relation between risk factors and protective factors. If the protective factors outweigh the risk factors, people are able to cope well with a crisis or even a traumatic experience.

Protective factor: social resources

Protective factors in the outside world are known as social resources. They include a loving family as well as things that support good health and help services provided by society. A rewarding job can also be a social resource.

Protective factor: personal resources

Individual, i.e. inner, protective factors are known as personal resources. These include strengths such as intelligence, creativity or an active, sociable personality. Social skills, problem-solving skills and self-efficacy (belief in one’s self and one’s own abilities) are also important resilience factors. A firm bond with parents can also be a protective factor for later on in life. This is because a firm bond enables self-confidence as well as trust in other people and the world.

Risk factors

All of these protective factors increase a person’s resilience in different areas to different degrees. Internal and external risk factors, on the other hand, reduce resilience. Important examples of external risk factors include poverty, child abuse, parental mental illness, discrimination, migration or the effects of the COVID-19 pandemic. Examples of internal risk factors include certain genes related to mental illness, emotional instability or the tendency to focus on problems.

What else influences resilience?

In the past, the responsibility for developing resilience was sometimes entirely attributed to individuals. However, this overlooked the fact that resilience is always influenced by external factors – both positively and negatively. In the face of war and other traumatic events, the resilience of all those affected decreases. An approach that ignores external risk and protective factors is therefore insufficient. 

Society, with all of its institutions, is responsible for many external factors that affect people’s resilience. For example, it is down to political decisions to preserve peace, to give citizens free access to social security and education and to maintain and develop health and social welfare systems. Political decisions at national and international level as well as the quality of social welfare, educational and health systems influence everyone’s resilience.

How can people successfully deal with crises?

The American Psychological Association (APA) has derived recommendations from years of research. These can help people deal better with crises and stressful times.

Strengthen relationships

Relationships are particularly important in difficult times. By talking to others, people do not feel as alone during a crisis. This can strengthen resilience. One option is to join groups, such as a religious community, a self-help group, a sports club or a choir.

Promote physical and mental health

Being good to yourself helps reduce ongoing physical and mental stress. Ways to do this include eating healthily, getting enough sleep and doing regular exercise.

Doing something good for yourself helps to reduce persistent physical and mental stress.

Alcohol, drugs and medication, on the other hand, are not suitable for reducing stress over the long term.

Mindfulness, relaxation, yoga, prayers or similar practices can increase wellbeing. It can help people to focus on the positive aspects of life and the things for which they are grateful.

Important: In the case of an acute crisis, meditation and relaxation techniques are no longer recommended from a certain level of tension. As they heighten inner awareness, they can also lead to a further increase in tension.

Help others

Helping others can be extremely fulfilling. Whether the homeless or a friend, it can increase your sense of self-worth and your connection with others. This also strengthens your mental resilience.

Focus on solutions and take action

Instead of focusing on problems for too long, look for solutions. You could ask yourself: “What can I do to resolve this problem?” If a problem seems insurmountable at first, consider what little steps you can take towards a solution.

Set goals

Goals can provide orientation and motivation. Perhaps you would like to ask yourself where you would like to be in one to five years. This gets you thinking about what you need to do to achieve that goal. It is important to set realistic intermediate goals. It is better to set yourself lots of small, achievable goals than a large, unachievable one.

Personal development

In a difficult situation, you could look for things that enable you to develop personally. For example, some people feel that critical life events bring them closer to others. This can increase their confidence and appreciation for life.

Helpful thoughts

People sometimes tend to dramatize or severely generalize things or to take them too personally. If an event is overwhelming, it helps to remember that you are not powerless: you have the ability to shape your life. You are often unable to change things that have happened, but can influence your thoughts and reactions in relation to them. This ability is called self-efficacy.

Accept change

Change is part of life. Some goals or ideals may no longer be achievable due to difficulties that have arisen. Accepting this can help you focus on the things that you can change.

Learn from the past

You may well have already overcome several crises in your life. Think about what helped you do this. Perhaps you can use your past experiences to deal with a new challenging situation.

Seek help

When facing crises, some people feel like they can no longer cope with their everyday lives or are severely affected by stressful feelings. This is perfectly normal and seeking professional help is not a sign of weakness. A psychotherapeutic relationship offers the chance to work together to find solutions. It is important for you to find a psychotherapist who you trust. Psychotherapy will then offer multiple ways in which it can support you.

Resilience training

Group resilience training can also increase mental resilience. Effective training is based on things like mindfulness practices, cognitive behavioral therapy or a combination of the two. Training programs are available for different age and target groups.

Reviewed by the German Psychological Society (Deutsche Gesellschaft für Psychologie e. V., DGPs).

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